Mastering a plan for Columbia

As Merriweather Post Pavilion gets a new life, local leaders seek to bolster the city's center.

April 17, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

General Growth Properties' announcement last week that it had abandoned its plan to enclose the Merriweather Post Pavilion resolved the open-air pavilion's uncertain fate.

But there is still much to address in the future of Merriweather and Town Center's development.

"Merriweather has been saved," said Ian Kennedy, co-founder of the advocacy group Save Merriweather. "But now we just have to figure out what that means."

General Growth is sticking to its desire to develop the venue's parking area.

But Dennis Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, has said he is working on a master development plan for Town Center that will include parking to accommodate concertgoers.

County Councilmen Guy Guzzone and Ken Ulman, both Democrats, also are working on a master plan for Columbia's urban center.

County Executive James N. Robey is including up to $250,000 in the county budget to help fund the process, which is to include a charrette -- an intensive gathering over consecutive days -- with experts, consultants and residents.

General Growth's planning process will include work sessions with about a dozen community leaders this month to put together a draft plan that will be shown to the public next month.

This comes after the company had sought to develop Merriweather's parking area -- one plan seeking more residential density and another wanting commercial buildings, both of which drew loud public opposition.

The county Zoning Board turned down the residential petition last year, and the company has appealed the decision to county Circuit Court. The county Planning Board is scheduled to meet May 26, when it could rule on the commercial petition.

Ulman attended a General Growth work session Tuesday and said afterward that during the four-hour meeting company representatives presented pictures and sketches of the downtown lakefront, The Mall in Columbia and the land around Merriweather.

Ulman said the sketches demonstrate that General Growth has been listening to the community's concerns, and the process is "the start of a real serious effort on their part to move forward."

However, Ulman said that the county needs to take the lead on creating a master plan to be able to plan for property that General Growth doesn't own and to generate greater public involvement.

"The county needs to take an active planning role, to coordinate everything, to pull it all together," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "I think it's all going to come together this fall."

The 51-acre property adjacent to Merriweather holds about 4,600 parking spaces, and the master plans by General Growth and the county likely will address how to mitigate that loss.

A citizen panel appointed by Robey has suggested three ways to create more parking -- formalize use of spaces at General Growth offices along the north side of Little Patuxent Parkway and the south portion of parking at The Mall in Columbia; construct a garage nearby on Columbia Association property; or jointly construct a garage with General Growth at the mall.

A question of Merriweather's ownership also remains.

General Growth had offered to sell Merriweather to the county, and the citizen panel recommended that the county buy the pavilion and preserve it as an open-air venue, but only if the parking situation can be solved.

Kennedy said he is nervous that, after General Growth's announcement, residents might have the perception that all matters concerning Merriweather are resolved.

"We'd like to see something set, something written that says Merriweather will forever remain open, that says parking will always be available ... that the owner, whoever it is, is committed to seeing Merriweather be successful," he said.

Frank Martin of Ellicott City who had fought General Growth's development plans, said he appreciates "the positive first step that GGP is showing [about Merriweather], but I'm still skeptical," because for the past two years the company has insisted that the pavilion should be enclosed and is not financially viable.

But Ulman said he is proud and excited about the progress that has been made with Merriweather and Town Center, and about their potential.

"I see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "And that light is saving Merriweather and creating a great downtown."

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